Having been cordoned off from the rest of the world for so long, the country holds a mysterious appeal, with visions of a time-warped otherworld exciting many a traveller’s imagination.
And as I fly in over the capital, Yangon, the sight is quite unlike anything I’ve seen before.
A thick blanket of jungle green is pierced by the spires of gleaming gold stupas – too many towering up above the trees to count.
The scene is so instantly exotic, so distinctly different, that I can feel the sticky heat awaiting me before we’ve even hit the tarmac.
Burma – officially Myanmar, but still known by its former name to the UK and the US, which do not recognise the unelected military regime’s name-change – has emerged as the must-see destination of the moment, thanks to the National League of Democracy’s decision to lift the tourism boycott it had encouraged since 1996.
The move came after the NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was finally released from house arrest by the ruling military government, kicking off what has widely been seen as significant improvements to the political landscape.
And so, for the first time in decades, this former pariah of the international community – hit with extensive sanctions from a West outraged by a military coup that killed thousands of civilians in 1988; the military junta’s refusal to honour the general election results of 1990; and one of the worst human rights records in the world – is now more-or-less open for business.
The impact of this so far is proving varied, ranging from the first official release of Titanic in Burmese cinemas (previously, US companies had been banned from doing business here), to a massive influx of tourists.
Tour operator Explore reported adding 70 departures to an initial schedule of 12 for this year, such is the scale of demand. Just walking Yangon’s streets delivers the thrill this new wave of visitors comes in search of – a sense of Burma as Southeast Asia’s final frontier.
In contrast to Bangkok’s shiny shopping malls and jeans and baseball caps, a two-minute stroll from my hotel takes me into crowds of weathered men wearing longyis, a sheet of chequered cloth worn from the waist to the feet, almost sarong-like.
Steam rises from streetside stovetops, chanting monks dodge the heaps of junk and rubble that litter the pavements, and there’s a constant crackle of frying food.
Loose paving slabs and open gutters swimming with murky grey water mean I soon learn to watch my step. That, and the red jets of betelnut juice regularly spat from passing taxis.
There are no McDonald’s or Starbucks – or, less satisfyingly, ATMs. Visitors have to bring immaculate US dollars to Burma and have them changed into the local kyat (pronounced ‘chat’) at exchange counters. My first stop here is Shwedagon Pagoda, the country’s most sacred Buddhist monument and dominator of Yangon’s skyline.
It’s said to be more than 2000 years old and, as legend has it, contains eight strands of the Buddha’s hair. Rudyard Kipling wrote that, upon seeing Shwedagon in 1889, “The golden dome said: ‘This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.’”
That message holds true more than 120 years later. My guide, Ko Ko, tells me the top of the pagoda is covered with diamonds and jewels donated by pilgrims.
To prove it, he ushers me into a building that proudly displays close-up photos of Shwedagon’s crown, too high for us to see clearly from the ground.
It’s dripping with riches. Earrings, necklaces and rubies completely canvas it, and a 15g diamond decorates the very top. I’m confused – aren’t the people of Burma some of the world’s poorest?
“They bring family heirlooms,” Ko Ko tells me. “They love the pagoda so much.” Stepping back out into the presence of the pagoda, the atmosphere turns suddenly eerie.
Clouds of incense blow across the complex as bells tinkle in the wind, each said to carry a prayer, the only sound filling a reverent silence. The gilded pagoda reaches into the sky with all its might.
Kingdom of Pagan There are three things I repeatedly heard about Burma when planning my trip: choosing to visit is an ethical dilemma; the country is untouched by tourism; the people are the friendliest you will ever meet. My journey finds some truths here – and also some fallacy.
Bagan further north is my next port of call, and also the source of my greatest anticipation. From the 9th to 13th centuries, this was the first capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, later to become Burma.
During this time, the Pagan Empire built an incredible 10,000 Buddhist temples and stupas across the plains, of which about 4000 remain today.
The sight of them stretching off into the horizon is Burma’s trump card; a challenger to Angkor Wat, Petra, the Pyramids, Machu Picchu – the lot.
Day one of exploring them, however, destroys one myth – tourism has not only just arrived in Burma.
There are hawkers outside every temple, hassling sightseers to buy postcards, trinkets, ‘gems’. Local women chase energy-sapped tourists struggling in the afternoon heat with thanaka – a yellow paste made from ground bark, worn by Burmese women as a natural sunscreen.
It’s a wily customer who escapes Bagan without having their face daubed in it. Bagan’s accustom to tourists is self-evident – in the street lined with shacks flogging pizzas, on the painted sign welcoming you to ‘Weather Spoon’s Restaurant’ (sic).
I ask Ko Ko if there was a dearth of tourists before now. He gives a wry smile and shakes his head. It might be more acceptable to holiday in Burma today, but plenty of people were coming before the boycott was lifted.
This puts paid to the idea of Burma as untouched territory, but it can’t spoil the spectacle of Bagan.
After climbing the steep stairs to the summit of Shwe Sandaw, a pagoda with a reputed sunset view, I snatch the money shot: brick-red temples are scattered in their thousands as far as I can see.
The aweing reality of something so unique – a scene you simply won’t see elsewhere in this world – is overwhelming. “No-one would believe it if I told them,” a woman nearby remarks, shaking her head. I take too many pictures. None of them do it justice.
Strange spiritualism A long bus ride east towards Burma’s other big draw, Inle Lake, takes me into rural terrain – the Burma in which the majority of the population lives.
The roads are atrocious. And yet, no matter how remote the potholed trail the bus judders over, there are lines of golden stupas winking in the scrub.
Locals ride around on wooden carts hauled by bullocks, while young nuns with shaved heads and pink robes chase our bus, laughing. Women and children break rocks on the roadside. A couple of times, I catch their eye from the window. They always extend a smile and a nod.
Ko Ko tells me that, while there used to be forced labour in remote areas of the country, the government now pays private companies to do this work.
The people I’m seeing are employed. How much do they earn? “Maybe 2000 kyat per day,” Ko Ko guesses – that’s about £1.50.
“It’s up to the private companies what they pay people. But there’s not much for them to do here, so they’re happy to get work.” I have a hunch his estimate is generous.
We make a stop at Pindaya Caves, a network of caverns decorated floor-to-ceiling with a purported 8000 images of Buddha.
I’d envisaged it as another eerily spiritual spot, so am disappointed when it turns out to be more akin to a Buddhist theme park.
Rather than ducking into a dank, dark cave, the entrance is guarded by a huge cartoon-like spider, and I take an elevator into the cliffside.
No doubt the maze of gold Buddhas inside is an arresting sight, but, for me, it feels more like a gaudy gimmick to be gawped at than a meaningful gesture.
It stirs in me an unease that has been growing since Shwedagon Pagoda, and continues to loiter at Inle Lake. The latter, like the rest of Burma, mesmerises with a unique allure.
Encircled by the Shan Hills and shocking-green rice paddies, exploring this freshwater lake by boat invites an embarrassment of striking scenes – warrens of rickety wooden stilt houses that give the impression of a ramshackle Venice; fishermen rowing longboats, as is local custom, with one leg wrapped around an oar.
At Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, in the middle of the lake, there are four Buddha idols that have been so completely covered with gold leaf, I cannot make out the man beneath.
They are merely bobbled baubles of gold. I watch as a monk buys four more squares of gold leaf from a hawker outside the pagoda, then plasters one to each idol, saying a prayer after each is stuck on. It’s this strange spiritualism that unsettles me.
Here is a monk spending what little he has on gold leaf to decorate a distorted Buddha; back in Yangon, poor pilgrims give the
country’s natural riches to a pagoda. (Burma is a prominent producer of precious stones, and supplies 90 per cent of the world’s rubies.)
In Bagan, the biggest temple is Dhammayangyi, built by a man who killed his father and brother and hoped the monument would be enough to buy him a place in heaven. Now consider that most Burmese live in poor, rural villages and labour on land that is not theirs, while every inch of the country glitters with gold stupas,and that many of the Buddhas at Pindaya Caves have been donated by the military junta.
I’d guess the psychology – making grand offerings after gross misdeeds – is the same. So what of the ethics of visiting this evidently troubled land?
Every local I meet is thrilled to see a foreigner and pursues conversation – being isolated must have been lonely. And things are probably better right now in Burma than they have ever been.
Posters and T-shirts of Aung San Suu Kyi are everywhere, once upon a time an offence worthy of imprisonment. Is democracy on its way?
It’s unlikely a government that shot dead protesting monks on the streets of Yangon as recently as 2007 is ready to give up its power, but the mood is at least hopeful.
In the end, I might be equal parts unnerved and awed by my visit to Burma, but I prefer that to knowing and feeling nothing at all.
Best of the rest: More must-see
Burma Golden Rock
In typically flashy fashion, this huge boulder seemingly teetering off the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo has been completely covered with gold leaf by Buddhist devotees.
The pilgrimage site, south of Yangon, provides one of Burma’s oddest tableaus: the apparently gravity-defying golden rock is believed to balance on a strand of Buddha’s hair, and a small gilded pagoda is built on top of it.
More: Intrepid Travel can add a visit to the Golden Rock onto tours from US$315pp (about £196).
Reminiscent of Tiger’s Nest monastery in Bhutan, the Popa Taungkalat monastery is perched atop a 2417ft volcanic plug near Mount Popa, a volcano in central Burma.
The sight of it sprawled high on the rocky outcrop is even more impressive than the view from the top, but it’s still worth climbing the 777 steps to the summit.
Just watch out for the packs of macaque monkeys lining the way – they’re not shy.
More: Intrepid Travel can add a day trip to Mount Popa from Bagan for about £10pp, depending on size of group.
Burma’s second city, Mandalay is a chaotic mess of motor scooters, chapatti stands and scrappy tea houses. Check out a show by the Moustache Brothers, a comedy trio known for sticking it to the regime.
More: Mandalay is included on Intrepid Travel itineraries.
Burma: how to visit
Whether or not to visit Burma has to be an individual’s choice. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that tourism boosts local business.
While package tours are largely considered to line the government’s pockets, travelling independently and making an effort to stay at locally run guesthouses is a more ethical method.
It’s unavoidable that some of your money will go to the government because businesses have to pay a tax.
But for many Burmese, tourism is truly a lifeline. Ko Ko Aye, a Burmese guide working for Intrepid Travel, tells us: “The people of Myanmar are happy about more tourists coming to our country because some people’s lives depend on it.
Besides, people want tourists to see our way of life.”
However, at Inle Lake, try to avoid visiting the ‘long-neck’ tribes, as these women are paraded around purely for tourists.
When to go: November to February is high season, when the weather is cooler and drier. March to May is stifling. Mid-May to Sept brings rain, but fewer tourists.
Currency: £1 = MMK1394 (Burmese Kyat).
Accommodation: New Park Hotel in Bagan offers bungalows, breakfast and AC for £11pn. newparkmyanmar.com At Inle Lake, the Four Sisters Inn is basic, but the ladies are lovely and cook up a great traditional Burmese feast. Rooms from £10pn. (Nan Pan Qtr, Nyaungshwe).
See: You’ll need a visa before you travel. myanmarembassyuk.co.uk aura was hosted by Intrepid Travel. A 15-day Best of Burma tour costs from £1300pp, excluding flights.
Intrepid has designed its tour as ethically as possible to minimise financial gain for the government. More at intrepidtravel.com
Photos: TNT; Getty; Thinkstock